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Civil Groups Blog

What Happens to Sadness?

November 20, 2009

 The following is an entry from my CiViL Groups Log on April 7, 2004.  All names have been changed to protect privacy.

 I love working with these freshman boys. They are so direct and honest with me. They still have a touch of the open-eyed truthfulness of children, and that makes talking with them so enjoyable.

Lost Finals

Today’s lesson was about losing. I asked them about last night’s women’s collegiate basketball finals, in which the Lady Vols lost to the Women’s U-Conn team. Michael said he was angry. Keon said, “I don’t even want to talk about it. Marquez said he didn’t see it. We talked about some of the responses the coaches and players had made to interviewers.

I described my son Alex’s loss last night at the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Alex’s car didn’t even make it to the finish line. It got stuck on the track because of a design flaw. After the race, Alex was sad. He didn’t want to watch the rest of the race, and he didn’t want to talk to me. Interpreting this as unsportsmanlike behavior, I accused him of indulging in self-pity. Calling Alex’s sadness self-pity was a mistake, and it is no wonder he wanted to avoid me. Later on we talked about the situation. I apologized for being hard on him, and I asked him what he would like me to do. Alex replied, “You could buy me and X-Box! That would make me feel better.” Of course this would just be medicating his pain, and I wouldn’t want to do that.

 A Boy’s Reaction

Some boys medicate the pain of loss, but a lot of boys accomplish the same thing by getting angry. Anger keeps them feeling strong, and it enables them to keep their distance from the hurt – hurt that some insensitive people might call self-pity. I asked the freshman guys to tell me about a time when they lost, a time when the loss really mattered to them. Each one gave all the details of a loss situation.  

Almost Champions

Then I asked them how they responded to losing. Did they get angry? At whom? In Michael’s story, he was angry at his mother because she kept him from going to his baseball team’s State Championship game. Instead she made him go to a sports camp because it had already been paid for. Michael believes that, as a result of his absence, his team lost. He pitches and bats clean-up. The night before he left for camp a lot of his teammates came to his house to beg him to come to the state championships. His Mom said no. Michael is still angry at himself for making his team lose that game.  He blames himself for not believing that his team could win without him. And even though he didn’t have any choice in the matter, he feels the loss is his own fault.

 Michael said that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about losing the state championship game. It’s significant that Michael still thinks about this loss nine months after it happened. That’s a long time for a high school kid to hang on to regrets. Imagine a freshman getting dumped by a girl and being obsessed with loss and self-blame nine months later. Such a long-standing regret would be considered nearly pathological. The intensity of Michael’s feeling is more like the loss of a loved one than the loss of a game. Wow! This really hurt him.

What Happens to Sadness 

I notice that sadness is not one of the emotions Michael described. Instead they express their loss as anger. My son, the Cub Scout, is young enough to still feel his sadness, but my insensitive response may have threatened Alex’s ability to feel his sadness openly. If I keep criticizing his sadness by calling it self-pity, he will learn that anger is the only safe response to his disappointment. I need to make a major change in how I handle his loss-feelings. My freshmen have already learned that bad lesson. My challenge in the coming weeks is to uncover some of the hurt beneath their anger. Hurt can be grieved. Grief expressed leads to acceptance. Acceptance is how we move on.

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